State of Disgrace: The Right Fiddles While Arizona Burns
It’s getting hot here in Arizona these days, and summer isn’t even upon us yet. As you’ve most likely heard, the Republican-controlled State Legislature passed – and the Republican Governor signed – the nation’s most draconian anti-immigrant law, essentially creating a class of new “status crimes” and opening a Pandora’s Box of racial profiling implications. While to many of us who live here such sentiments among state officials aren’t exactly novel, the shocking “where are your papers?” aspects of the law (SB 1070) have raised a much-deserved national furor.
As is almost always the case, there’s more to this than meets the eye. Yes, this is part of an ideologically-motivated and racially-tinged platform embraced by many in power here. In addition to perpetual anti-immigrant bills being proposed and sometimes passed, this cadre has been targeting education both through severe budget cuts and a form of pedagogical purification in which it will quite likely soon be illegal to teach anything that is deemed “anti-American” (HB 2281). Apparently, the irony of passing these two bills in near succession must be lost on those who would contravene constitutional law and moral sensibility in the name of American purity.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
We’ve been living in a political desert here for a long time, and irony is only relevant if it can be strip-mined. While the state’s coffers have precipitously hit their nadir, legislators have rolled out corporate tax breaks, passed “birther” requirements for ballot access, forced our public education system down to the bottom rung, and shilled for more concealed weapons in our midst. Now we get apartheid laws that even go so far as to criminalize anyone who transports, harbors, employs, or attempts to shield from enforcement an “unauthorized alien” (which is of course a euphemism for “illegal immigrant,” which is in turn a euphemism for “persona non grata”). SB 1070 further cracks down on “day laborers” and those who utilize said labor, indicating an obvious anti-Latino strain permeating this shameful legislative act.
Much of the commentary thus far has understandably focused on the ethnic and racial aspects of the bill. Undoubtedly, the measure is aimed directly at vulnerable communities of color, and consequently the sense of fear and terror among people already used to being persecuted has risen to unprecedented levels. Many are considering leaving the state, and indeed this type of en masse forced migration may be part of what the law’s advocates have intended all along. Less considered in the analysis are the profoundly negative economic impacts likely to be the result of the law, which flies in the face of the standard line advanced by proponents that illegal immigrants are an economic drain on the state.
As Leah Mundell, co-chair of the Northern Arizona Interfaith Council, explains, “one thing that has seemed increasingly clear is how blind our representatives are to the links between immigrants and economic recovery in Arizona…. Even if you ignore the moral implications of SB 1070 entirely, it is incredible that the Republicans would have passed this at a moment of such economic crisis for the state. Judy Ganz [is] an economist at the Udall Center at the University of Arizona, who has calculated the economic costs and benefits of immigration and shown that immigrants provide a tremendous net cost benefit for the state. To pass a bill like this – an unfunded mandate for already strapped police departments, which will fill up our jails and lead to untold lawsuits from both the right and the left (for racial profiling and failure to enforce the law) – at a time when we’re so deep in debt already is irresponsible beyond measure.”
At this juncture, we might pause for a moment to consider the state motto, which is “Ditat Deus” – translation: “God Enriches.” Given the thorough dismantling of the state’s treasury in recent years, the phrase “Red State” has taken on new meaning here, and the divine ethos of this motto may well be our best remaining hope for avoiding total economic collapse. By all appearances the Republicans are fiddling while Arizona burns, yet perhaps a sense of just desserts will still triumph in the end as the backlash from their folly might finally cause the Right to fizzle while Phoenix, et al. rises from the ashes. Maybe then we can adopt a new and more accurate Latin motto for the state: “Dito Advenae” – “Immigrants Enrich” (pardon my Latin).
Others have further noted the ostensible political machinations at play here. Greg Palast speculates that SB 1070 is a ploy to tamp down Democratic-leaning minority voters, and in fact there is a potent history on this point that includes our current Governor when she was Secretary of State. As Palast cogently observes, the law suits the interests of the Republicans in power “because the vast majority of perfectly legal voters and residents who lack ID sufficient for [them] are citizens of color, citizens of poverty.” Thus, part of the impetus for SB 1070, as Palast concludes, is to dissuade legal immigrants from participating electorally by creating a climate of intimidation. The roots of this sort of nefarious business run deep here, including longstanding allegations that prominent Arizona Republicans such as former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist have orchestrated “ballot security” actions “that swept through polling places in minority-dominated districts to challenge the right of African Americans and Latinos to vote.”
More recently, powerful individuals such as the bill’s sponsor, Republican State Sen. Russell Pearce, seem determined to uphold this unfortunate legacy. As Democratic State Rep. Kyrsten Sinema recently told me, Pearce “has been working for years to pass this bill. Up to now, we’ve been successful in stopping him…. Instead of focusing on real solutions to our state’s crisis, this bill will only exacerbate problems that already exist. Already, Sheriff Joe [Arpaio] is under investigation by the Department of Justice, and reports of racial profiling are coming out of Maricopa County regularly now. This is a sad stain on our state, but it’s not a new stain. Folks like Mr. Pearce and his extremist allies around the country have been working towards this for years.” Oddly enough, Pearce prominently displays these words from the Declaration of Independence on his website, seemingly ignorant of the fact that they contain no apparent limitation as to the extent of their applicability: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Such ironies and absurdities would almost be funny – kind of a desert Mayberry moment where the hayseeds find themselves in charge without a clue how to proceed – except that it’s a deadly serious game being played here. The Arizona-Mexico border is the nation’s most lethal for would-be crossers, and the tensions of NAFTA-inspired corporate globalization have added a demonstrable touch of evil to an already foreboding landscape. While racism and electoral machinations certainly play a part in the drama, there are even more layers to this story, and unsurprisingly crass politics figure prominently into the toxic mix that has engendered this law.
The Only Thing We Have to Fear…
I recently spoke about these issues with Dr. Luis Fernandez, a professor of Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University (NAU) who regularly works with immigrant communities. He notes that a more pragmatic motivation for passing SB 1070 is that “with the economy so bad in the state, the party in power would normally stand a good chance of getting kicked out of office,” and with this bill the Republican-dominated incumbents “are attempting to deflect attention from the economy and control the agenda by forcing the immigration issue” to the fore in a feat of political scapegoating. He further observes that “the far right is trying to gain control of the Republican Party here,” evidenced by the serious primary challenges from the right being faced by Governor Jan Brewer and Sen. John McCain, among others. “This is part of a battle for the party’s soul, and it could be a preview of what’s in store nationally as well,” Fernandez concludes.
Thus, while it appears to be a contest between powerful reactionary forces on the one hand and communities of color and their progressive allies on the other, it might be more to the point to see the furor over SB 1070 as a battle between the right and the far right on some level, with voter manipulation and pervasive racial profiling as the welcomed byproducts. Still, the consequences for people already in precarious political, legal, and economic straits are demonstrable. As Fernandez recalls, the day the law was signed was akin to a “crushing blow … people were openly crying and many have been gripped by a terrifying fear.” For many of these individuals, the overwhelming majority of whom strive to support their families and contribute peaceably to their communities, it was already scary to drive, ask for work, or participate in the political process. “Now,” Fernandez laments, “their very existence is being threatened” – a point that is doubly poignant when we further consider that many immigrants are in fact political and economic refugees who have come here seeking a safe haven from violence and repression.
In another moment of irony, the passage of SB 1070 may actually be the product of fear and a perceived existential threat in itself, argues Dr. Joel Olson, professor of Political Science at NAU and a member of the Repeal Coalition, a statewide grassroots organizing seeking the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws in Arizona since 2008. Olson points out that “the support for nativism in Arizona is largely motivated by whites who fear a loss of racial status due to the influx of Latinos to the state and who are uncomfortable with Spanish-language signs in stores, TV and radio stations, etc.” The racial aspects of the bill are complex, he notes, and “very few supporters of 1070 consider themselves racist or want to be seen as racist.” Nevertheless, “they are driven by a fear of the immigrant (read: Mexican) as a criminal,” and oftentimes will “project their racialized fears of crime onto the migrant, while still denying they are racist,” Olson concludes. As Mark Kurlansky opines in his book Nonviolence, “people motivated by fear do not act well.”
From Protest to Paradigm Shift
In this sense, the law is race-based yet is also motivated by factors of fear, power, and status. Again, there are pervasive ironies to be found, as Olson notes in his call for breaking the cycle of fear and repression that largely defines the terms of the conflict: “The only solution is to show [supporters of 1070] that these laws strip away their freedom, too…. These laws encourage them to see their neighbors through the lens of fear rather than solidarity. They are creating, in other words, the very problem they are trying to solve.” As State Rep. Sinema concurs, “the bill criminalizes people for being good neighbors – taking a friend to church or giving someone a ride when their car breaks down. If an Arizonan doesn’t ask about their neighbors’ legal status, they’re jeopardizing their own safety under the law. This forces citizens to ‘police’ their own community, which is wrong.” This line of analysis has the virtue of resisting the tendency to demonize the law’s supporters, and furthermore suggests that we might seek solidarity-based answers to the complex issues at play here rather than falling into the trap of pitting communities against one another as real concerns go unheeded.
Indeed, amidst the grief and terror that has gripped migrant communities, advocates and allies are seeking ways to help people turn their tears into action. Talk of boycotts, mass civil disobedience, and open subversion of the law is being heard from many corners. Some have been calling upon law enforcement officers to refuse to enforce the law on moral and constitutional grounds. Legal challenges are in the offing and it’s possible (though by most counts unlikely) that the federal government will step in given the massive outcry over the bill. Regardless, it’s going to be a long, hot summer here in the desert as the battle ensues in the days ahead. As Sinema counsels, the rightwing power structure has been at this for some time, and now “it’s our job to stop them and begin rebuilding an Arizona that is welcoming and diverse.”
In this same spirit of turning crisis into opportunity and divisiveness into solidarity, Mundell observes that “this moment has tremendous potential if we don’t squander it. This week, people from across the community are scandalized and furious. Immigrant leaders are calling for an economic boycott to show the power of immigrant dollars. Public officials are debating how to take legal action. Students are protesting. The anger and outrage are even stronger than the fear that the bill provokes. But that kind of energy can only be sustained for so long [and] I hope that we will use this moment to build a more long-term strategy. That includes deep and collaborative relationships with law enforcement, who [in many instances] do not want to have to enforce this bill. It means listening carefully to immigrant leaders who have often been afraid to speak out but now feel they have nothing left to lose. It also means capitalizing on the shock that many who have not been involved in this issue in the past are now feeling. We have the opportunity to build a much broader power base now, to hold our state elected officials accountable … and to ensure that comprehensive immigration reform doesn’t fall off the national stage by summer.”
Talking about Arizona politics in today’s news cycle seemingly conjures images of Mississippi in the 1960s: i.e., a place where racist fears have gone completely haywire. From an outsider’s perspective it may justifiably look this way, yet it’s also the case that many decent and dedicated people are working tirelessly here not just to undo bad laws but to create a climate of respect and equity. In a time of crisis where fear is rampant on all sides of the immigration debate, perhaps the recognition of this basic commonality can serve as a crucible for turning an incendiary issue into an opportunity for Arizonans to act well with the eyes of the nation now squarely upon us. Stranger things have happened in the desert, where we are all merely strangers in a strange land.